The current consensus is that we do not know who authored the Gospel of John and that there is compelling evidence that suggests it was not authored by the disciple John. We agree with this position.
Although tradition holds that the gospel was authored by the “beloved disciple” (21:24) most scholars reject this (1). The tradition view that the disciple authored this gospel was embraced in early church tradition but has been strongly challenged by eighteenth and nineteenth century critical scholarship. Most scholars view John as anonymous and the early church tradition to be far too late to be of much value.
Several reasons are given in support of this. The Gospel of John is so different to the synoptics in content that whoever wrote John could not have been an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus. Second, based on the developed theology in John, many scholars believe that the gospel took decades to develop. This can be challenged, however, given the highly developed christology is Paul’s writings, as early as the 50s CE. Third, John the disciple was unlikely to have the ability to write in the first place, especially not the developed theology and Greek we find in John. The disciple John was a fisherman (according to the synoptics) and an “unschooled, ordinary” man according to Acts 4:13. Moreover, the date of John’s gospel is thought to be around 90 CE, which is sixty years after the death of Jesus, and arguably too late for the disciple John to have authored it. Fifth, it is now widely accepted that the Gospel of John does not derive from a single author but went had through several editions before reaching its final form (2).
We do have some idea of the background of John’s author, however. It is thought that John’s gospel arose in a Jewish Christian community in the process of breaking from the Jewish synagogue (3). The gospel shows an intimacy with Jewish traditions and the affairs of Jesus’ day, a knowledge of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and an intimate relationship with Jesus and the events of his ministry (4). The author is also evidently hostile to Jesus’ enemies who he calls “the Jews.” Yet the author does regard himself as a Jew and he likely wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience (5).
So, we can know that the author was a Jew, that he wrote for a Jewish audience, and that he knew about Jewish customs, Jerusalem and Jesus’ ministry. Although he was a Jew he is also evidently hostile to the Jewish enemies of Jesus.
1. Cornerstone Institute. 2017. New Testament Foundations. p. 58.
2. Edwards, Ruth. 2015. Discovering John: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. ix. Ehrman, Bart. 2004. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford University Press. p. 164-165.
3. Burkett, Delbert. 2002. An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity. Cambridge University Press. p. 215-216.
4. Cornerstone Institute. 2017. Ibid. p. 59.
5. Senior, Donald. 1991. The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Michael Glazier.p. 155-156.
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